Fridays with Fuhrmann: ECE careers for the good of the Earth

FWF_image_20160422Today, April 22, is Earth Day, so it seems appropriate to say a few things about the environmental impact of the work of electrical engineers.

Actually, there is a whole lot to say, much of it surrounding the topic of generation, transmission, and distribution of electrical power. This is not my own area of technical expertise – I am more of a communications and signal processing engineer – so I have to exercise caution in pontificating too much on the topic. I will hasten to point out this is an area of strength for the ECE Department at Michigan Tech, as it has been ever since the department was founded in 1928. We have a lot of good people contributing to the next generation of power and energy technology, and to the education of the next generation of power and energy engineers who are going to make that technology work.

It is safe to say that the development of electrical power has had a huge impact on human civilization over the last 100 years. As a species, we learned how to burn fossil fuel in enormous rotating machines, and through the magic of electromagnetic induction we convert that mechanical energy to electrical energy which can be transmitted over long distances and distributed to homes and businesses everywhere. The development of “universal electrification,” as this is called, was named the #1 technical achievement of the 20th century by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. It has had an immeasurable positive effect on the standard of living and quality of life for us all. Think about that the next time you turn on a light switch in the middle of the night.

We now understand that this technological advancement comes with a certain environmental cost. One cannot burn fossil fuel without putting some residue back into the atmosphere, and the consensus of the vast majority of professionals who know what they’re talking about is that this is having a detrimental effect on our world (I don’t claim to be one of those people.) As electrical engineers we have to take some responsibility for that problem. Fortunately, if we are part of the problem, we are also part of the solution. A great many smart, dedicated electrical engineers are looking at alternative means for generating and distributing electrical power that do not have the same environmental cost, or so we hope. I can’t begin to go into all the technology and the tradeoffs in alternative and renewable energy generation, and the smart distribution systems that go with them – we have entire courses on that topic – but I encourage all young engineers with a passion for making a big contribution to the planet to consider this as a career possibility.

From my own casual observations, I see a lot of potential in solar power. Everything that we are and everything we consume ultimately comes from the sun anyway. I am particularly fascinated by passive solar technology, whereby arrangements of mirrors are used to concentrate solar energy, creating localized areas of intense heat for turning steam turbines or melting salt. I can’t help but think that there is a lot of real estate in the desert Southwest of the United States where such technology could easily be deployed. [I'll probably catch a lot of flak from some people for that position - the desert is much more than a lot of sun-baked nothingness, and I get it - but it's easy to see how one might get that impression when you fly from here to California.] The dropping costs and widespread adoption of solar photovoltaics is a positive sign too – although from an environmental perspective one needs to factor in the cost of acquiring natural resources and manufacturing the panels.

I’m not a big fan of wind power (no pun intended), mostly because I think that the big wind farms popping up all over American farmland are kind of ugly. Other people find them stately and beautiful, so I am willing to be wrong about that. As an alternative means of providing much-needed power that we are most certainly not going to give up, I can see the value. I did read a fascinating article recently in IEEE Spectrum about how wind power is a testament to our dependence on fossil fuel, when one considers everything that goes into the manufacturing, transportation, and deployment of wind turbines: see

Steering away from power and energy for a bit, let me add that there are other ways that electrical engineers can practice their trade and have a positive impact on the environment. Watch out for water as a big growth area in the coming decades. Water is something we all take for granted, until something goes horribly wrong as it did with the recent slow-motion trainwreck in Flint. People are now talking about the “water-energy nexus” in which our dependence on water and energy makes one big interconnected system: we need water to produce electrical energy, and we need electrical energy to produce clean water. I foresee a lot of important work to be done, and also a lot of career opportunities.

I’ll use that last assertion to put in a plug for our new Concentration in Environmental Applications, offered as part of our undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at Michigan Tech. We created this concentration to give students with an interest in air quality, water quality, and/or remote sensing an opportunity to pursue those interests and at the same time apply their engineering talents. There are going to be a lot electrical engineers needed for the electrical machinery, automation, industrial control, communication, and signal processing that go into the systems that monitor and improve our air and water quality. Please take a look if that sounds interesting – the ECE Department will be happy to provide all the information you need.

Happy Earth Day!

(Also – happy last day of classes to all our graduating seniors! Take it easy on Senior Walk, OK?)

- Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Fridays with Fuhrmann: It’s a great time to be an ECE!

ECE Woman of Promise, Alexis Dani, presented by ECE chair Dan Fuhrmann
ECE Woman of Promise, Alexis Dani, presented by ECE chair Dan Fuhrmann

Happy Tax Day everyone! Actually the real Tax Day this year isn’t until Monday, and that’s a good thing considering how busy things have been in the ECE Department this week. Here’s a little factoid I just learned this week: April 15 is the birthday of Swiss mathematician, physicist, and astronomer Leonhard Euler (1707). Everyone knows Euler’s Formula, right?

This is the time when all our seniors are wrapping up their Senior Design and Enterprise projects, and we have a lot of visitors in town to see what we are doing and to help us out with the evaluation of the projects.

The ECE External Advisory Committee, or EAC, is here for the Spring 2016 meeting. This is a group of about a dozen industry representatives, most of them Tech alumni, who visit us twice a year to help us in our quest for continuous improvement. A lot of their time in the spring meeting is devoted to judging Senior Design and Enterprise projects, which happened yesterday (Thursday April 14). We had a total of 24 projects this year, and each project team is required to present their results and field questions in a 45-minute session. All of the ECE faculty and the graduate student TAs also participated in the judging. This is a great day in the life of the ECE Department, when we get to see all the hard work of the students over four years brought to fruition. My thanks to everyone, especially the EAC, that helped make the day a success.

We concluded the day with the Senior Awards Banquet at the Memorial Union Ballroom. Here we recognize both individuals and teams for their outstanding contributions to the ECE Department.

The individual student award winners are:

ECE Woman of Promise / Martha Sloan Scholarship: Alexis Dani (pictured above)
ECE Departmental Scholar: Derek Gheller
Carl S. Schjonberg Outstanding Senior: Ian Cummings

Derek Gheller, ECE Departmental Scholar
Derek Gheller, ECE Departmental Scholar
Ian Cummings, Carl S. Schjonberg ECE Outstanding Senior
Ian Cummings, Carl S. Schjonberg ECE Outstanding Senior

The Larry Kennedy Industry Innovation Award, the award given by the EAC to the top design project in the department, went to Senior Design Team 8, Traveling Wave Fault Location, sponsored by American Transmission Company (ATC) with faculty advisor John Lukowski.

L-R:  ATC's Joe Kysely, SD8 members Jacob Marshall and Kevin Schoenknecht (Troy Johnston not pictured), SD assistant/ECE PhD student Dustin Drumm, and team advisor Prof. John Lukowski
L-R: ATC’s Joe Kysely, SD8 members Jacob Marshall and Kevin Schoenknecht (Troy Johnston not pictured), SD assistant/ECE PhD student Dustin Drumm, and team advisor Prof. John Lukowski

Finally, the Eta Kappa Nu (HKN) Professor of the Year award was given to Senior Lecture Kit Cischke. Kit teaches many of the core courses in our computer engineering program, and is the faculty advisor for the Wireless Communications Enterprise. He does a fabulous job and all the students love him. Congratulations Kit, and thanks for all you do!

Professor of the Year, Senior Lecturer Kit Cischke, presented by HKN's Matthew Andres
Professor of the Year, Senior Lecturer Kit Cischke, presented by HKN’s Matthew Andres

Earlier in the week we had a visit from another “unofficial” advisory group – a group of 5 industry leaders and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley, led by Brocade CEO Dave House. Dave has been a very good friend of the ECE Department for many years, and in fact you may recognize his name from the professorship that I hold. Dave and company were here to advise and encourage the entire university, not just the ECE Department, on matters of innovation, entrepreneurship, and where technology is headed from their point of view. Dave has been very influential on my thinking about the importance of building closer ties among the ECE Department, the Department of Computer Science, and the School of Technology. On Tuesday I was very pleased to be able to report to the group that the performance results in the new Institute of Computing and Cybersystems, measured in new research awards, research expenditures, publications, and student support, was much higher than expected. The ICC is the most significant effort arising from the joint activity of the three units mentioned above, and so it is gratifying to see things coming together as they are.

On top of all that, we had some fantastic news from the ECE faculty this week. Assistant Professors Durdu Guney, Timothy Havens, and Chee-Wooi Ten have all been recommended by the Provost for promotion to the rank of Associate Professor, with tenure. The final vote will be taken at a meeting of the Board of Trustees in two weeks’ time. My congratulations to Durdu, Tim, and Chee-Wooi on reaching this major milestone – we expect many great things from them in the years to come.

All for now. Get those taxes in!

- Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Presentation Day for ECE Senior Design and Enterprise teams

SD2015This Thursday, April 14, 2016, will be a huge day for students in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s Senior Design and Enterprise programs. Not only will they participate in Michigan Tech’s Design Expo, but they will also make their final presentations for the year to ECE faculty, staff, students, and the department’s External Advisory Committee.  To see a complete list of teams, including a description of the projects, see: presentation schedule.

Please feel free to attend any or all presentations and good luck to our teams!



We Inspire wins Highest Growth Potential Award

BSEE senior Arick Davis (3rd from left)

Two student teams from Michigan Tech each brought home $10,000 or more in venture funding from the New Venture Competition at Central Michigan University last weekend.

We Inspire, led by BSEE senior Arick Davis, won the $10,000 Korson Family Highest Growth Potential Award. We Inspire is developing an online system and community to help students make informed career choices by connecting them with profiles and feedback from practicing professionals.

Superior Filament, led by Cedric Kennedy, Aubrey Woern and Jos Krugh, brought home a $10,000 Best Technology Award, as well as another $1,000 for Best Pitch and the $250 Audience Choice Award.

The student-run company is developing filment for 3-D printers from recycled plastics to support growth in the 3-D printing industry while reducing environmental impact.

Two other Michigan Tech teams participated in the annual entrepreneurial competition. TRU is developing a big data solution with proprietary algorithms to help performance athletes optimize performance through informed nutritional and dietary supplement choices.

Huskies 4 Hire is connecting students looking for short-term employment opportunities with community members seeking temporary employees.

The Pavlis Honors College helped sponsor the event financially. The student teams received support from Michigan Tech’s Innovation Center for Entrepreneurship, the School of Business and Economics and the MTEC SMartZone.

Original story by Jenn Donovan, Tech Today, 4/12/16

For more information see LinkedIn Pulse.

Fridays with Fuhrmann: The image of ECE

FWF_image2_20160408A couple of weeks ago I attended the annual meeting of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association, or ECEDHA, in San Diego. I enjoyed seeing old friends, making new ones, and having good discussions about a number of issues that we have in common and may not realize.

One of those issues is that of the ECE “image”, that is, how the general public, and specifically prospective students and their parents, views the field of electrical and computer engineering. There is a lot of angst and hand-wringing over the fact that we as a profession are not widely known or appreciated for what we have accomplished, and that in fact we are “losing ground” to other disciplines who are moving in on our turf.

This brings up a couple of thoughts for me. The first is, should we be worried about this at all? I think I will put that one off, and today I will offer a couple of observations on how I think we got to this point.

First of course is the “nerd” stereotype associated with electrical engineers, and engineers in general. This is promulgated in popular culture – think e.g. of the comic strip Dilbert, or Wollowitz in “The Big Bang Theory”, or many of the characters in “Revenge of the Nerds.” We all cringe at these stereotypes, although most of us in our heart of hearts will admit there is a kernel of truth in them; some even embrace them fully. Still, it is a constant battle to convince young people that one can be an engineer and still live a happy, healthy, productive, and well-adjusted life. I do what I can when given the opportunity.

A second issue is the “invisibility” part, that is, no one knows who we are and what we do. In this regard I think that as electrical engineers we have become a victim of our own success. We happen to work on systems that depend wholly or in part on the manipulation of electricity – voltage, current, electric fields, and the like – and it just turns out that of all the forces of nature in the universe, electricity is probably the most malleable. We can do things at unbelievable scales of both space and time. We can make electrical devices change their state a billion times a second, and can put a billion different such devices on a chip no bigger than a square centimeter. As a consequence, we can build systems that do unbelievable things, like a smart phone that connects to the Internet and downloads and displays videos from half a world away. The problem is, this technology is so successful that it is adopted quickly and commoditized. It is so useful and popular that people will just assume that it exists (or even claim that they have right to it) and they are unaware where it came from and the effort that it took to bring it to market. One can say this about electrical power to the home, telephone service, radio, TV, audio systems, medical instrumentation, computers – the list goes on and on. All this stuff just showed up in our lives in the space of two to three generations. But if you ask kids who invented the iPhone, guess what they will tell you, almost certainly: scientists.

It may be that part of the reason we as a profession are invisible is that the stuff we work with – electricity – is also invisible. The work of a mechanical engineer is obvious in the motion of an automobile, and the work of a civil engineer is obvious in the structure of a bridge. It’s there for all the world to see. However, people just have to take our word for it when we say we are pushing electrons around for the benefit of humanity. You can see the results of our work – that video downloaded to your phone, say – but everything that made that happen remains a mystery to most.

What to do about this situation? I suppose we have to address the first question I asked, namely, should we worry about it at all? Stay tuned; I’ll pick that up another day.

- Dan

Daniel Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Happy April 1st!

campusGreetings and Happy Spring everyone.  I am thrilled to bring you some exciting news from the world of high tech.

First off, Google has announced that as part of its effort to develop an autonomous, or self-driving, car, they have been secretly developing the technology that will make it self-powered as well.  Specifically, they have invented a closed-loop wind power system in which the motion of the car turns a roof-mounted windmill that powers both the electric motors and the on-board computers, which require roughly equal power.  At highway speeds the energy conversion is so efficient that the generators create more energy than is needed to propel the car.  The energy is stored in large batteries, and can be sold back to local utilities at “unfilling stations” which Google also plans to deploy at street corners across America, in a cooperative venture with Starbucks.  The new vehicle, called the Blowhard, is expected to eliminate American dependence on fossil fuel for transportation. A second team of civil engineers has been assembled by the tech giant to consider the retrofitting of highway overpasses to accommodate the new design.

Second, Apple and Facebook are teaming up and plan to use their considerable economical and political clout to lobby for a repeal Shannon’s celebrated Channel Capacity Theorem.  At a joint press conference, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decried the excessive regulatory burden of this antiquated 68-year-old result.  Said Zuckerburg, “We need relief now from the political correctness of Shannonism and everything it is doing to hinder the awesome power of innovation and entrepreneurship across the U.S.  We now have devices that can access all of human knowledge, but because of a bunch of eggheads who don’t understand the real needs of our industry, all that people can do is use the technology to insult strangers and look at videos of cats.”  Cook concurred.  “We need some fresh thinking in Washington to unlock the true potential of the Internet, to give all Americans something for nothing.  I hope everyone has that in mind as they evaluate the candidates for national office in the upcoming elections.”

Finally, in a surprise move reversing an earlier decision, the National Academy of Engineering has named the automated voice answering system as the #1 technical achievement of the 20th century.

- Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann

Dave House Professor and Chair

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Michigan Technological University

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Engineering + Management

FWF_image_1_20160325The last couple of weeks I have written about entrepreneurship, management, and leadership in engineering and engineering education. I have a few more thoughts about this topic, and next week I’ll move on to something else.

Last week I said that I support education in entrepreneurship and innovation for ECE students, but that I don’t have much to offer in that arena so I’ll have to leave it up to someone else. I also made the case for an education that emphasizes engineering fundamentals first, and the other more human-centered activity later. I stand by those remarks, although I will admit there is plenty of room for debate. This past weekend I heard a lot of that debate at the annual meeting of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association, or ECEDHA (yes, there really is such a group.) A lot of universities and engineering schools are introducing entrepreneurship into the curriculum, so Michigan Tech is not alone in this venture and we can probably learn a lot from our peers.

My first point will be to encourage 5-year programs for students that really want to do it all. The standard undergraduate engineering program is four years, and at Michigan Tech that means 128 student credit hours – 32 per year, 16 per semester. The pressure is on to cram as much stuff as we possibly can in those 128 credit hours. We certainly contribute to that problem by our insistence on rigorous EE and CpE programs that have a lot of courses required by name and number. I still maintain this is the right approach, since the best time to learn that material is when one are 18 to 22 years old, and we have a whole lifetime to keep learning about relationships with other people, how organizations work, and how to turn ideas into money. For those students that want to combine engineering with business, then I think the best approach is to admit that four years is just not enough, and the investment of another year of early adult life in education may be called for. This creates some breathing room, and also an opening to pursue an additional degree. This degree could be a second undergraduate degree such as a BS in Engineering Management, or an advanced technical degree such as our MS in Electrical Engineering or MS in Computer Engineering. At Michigan Tech we have recently introduced the “accelerated” MS program, where students can double-count 6 credits toward both a BS and an MS degree, thereby getting both the BS and MS in 152 total credits instead of 158 (128+30). Not that many students are taking advantage of this opportunity to date, but that is mostly the result of our not doing enough to promote the program. That is certainly on my to-do list.

For students who want to go “all in” for engineering management and leadership, I strongly recommend a rigorous undergraduate engineering education first, working a few years as an engineer in a reputable organization, and then returning to school either full-time or part-time to earn an MBA. The Engineering + MBA combination is a very hot ticket and students who can get all the way through both sides will find themselves very well positioned for a lucrative career. What I don’t really recommend is a stand-alone undergraduate program in engineering management. Michigan Tech has one of these programs, and so I’m probably going to get in trouble for writing these words. I’m just not a big fan. I believe that the first step toward engineering management is engineering, which means knowing what the field is and actually having work experience in it. I will bolster this argument by pointing out that undergraduate engineering majors are very well-represented among Fortune 500 CEOs; see Insead Knowledge blog. Again, this is one of these areas where there is room for debate, so if any of my colleagues want to take issue with my remarks I will be happy to give them room in this column to do so.

Finally, let me mention the hot-button issue of General Education, or “Gen Ed” as it is often called. This refers to the set of courses that are included in the curriculum to ensure a well-rounded education of all the students. In many institutions the Gen Ed program refers to the requirements that are common to all students, and this is the case at Michigan Tech. Now I am all for a well-rounded education, and believe that all students should have a meaningful learning experience in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. This helps to promote good critical thinking and communication skills. Like a lot of electrical engineers, I am an amateur musician and that has made a huge difference for me personally in giving me a broad outlook on life, not to mention expanding my circle of friends. Where I have problems with Gen Ed programs is that those in charge of setting requirements often give short shrift to business-related courses, which really can be a part of a broad education and at the same time create some room in the 4-year engineering programs for those with interests in business, economics, and accounting. So, I will continue pushing for a “broader” interpretation of what Gen Ed means, and hopefully our ECE students will benefit in the long term.

Have a great weekend. I’ll be back next week with some thoughts stirred up by the recent ECEDHA meeting.

- Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Engineering Education and Entrepreneurship

FWF_image_20160318Last week I wrote about my trip to the San Francisco and Bay Area and the culture of high-tech innovation that is flourishing there. Today I will follow up with a few random thoughts about entrepreneurship and the role that universities play in this world.

There is no doubt that entrepreneurship and start-up companies are huge in Silicon Valley. There is a whole eco-system of universities (most notably Stanford), venture capital, incubators, and a wealth of engineering talent to keep the Valley humming. Everybody and his brother has some venture going, in fact you’re nobody if you’re not trying to create some new business. It’s as if, in southern California, everyone is out trying to hawk their amazing screenplay, and in northern California, everyone has an idea for an Internet start-up that they will pitch to anyone who will listen.  Everyone is aware of the meteoric rise of Apple, Google, and Facebook – Steve Jobs has become a cultural icon – and the prevailing sentiment is, there is no good reason that I can’t do the same thing and become a bazillionaire with my fantastic disruptive technology.

This is sort of an aside, but this whole culture of entrepreneurship is brilliantly depicted in the hilarious HBO series “Silicon Valley”, about to go into its third season. The show follows a group of engineering misfits (aren’t we all) with a great algorithm for  video coding, all living and working under one roof, as they navigate the choppy waters of venture capitalists, big-time competitors, trade shows, and misguided management. I highly recommend it, although it is HBO so be prepared for the usual cable standards of adult language and themes. I have had a number of good conversations in California about the show, and everyone has an opinion. Many will say “it’s nothing like that!” but just as many will nod knowingly and say “it’s exactly like that.”

But back to matters at hand. The culture of entrepreneurship which has taken California by storm and has become part of the national conversation, is having a big impact on engineering programs, especially in electrical engineering and computer science. It is  now clear that starting a company is now one of the options available to young engineers, right alongside getting a job at an established company or going to graduate school. The question is, what can we do, and what should we do, as educators to prepare students for this brave new world?

Michigan Tech is addressing this question head-on. We have established a Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, precisely to help students learn about project management, innovation, entrepreneurship, and business practices in the high-tech environment. Students from all different disciplines have the opportunity to participate in the Center, and indeed it played a role in the “Silicon Valley Experience” that I described last week. The Center is getting a lot of attention from philanthropically-minded alumni, and rightly so. I expect it to be a big success, and a big draw for new students coming to Michigan Tech.

That being said, my personal answer to what we should be doing for our students is a little bit different. I have to admit, straight up, that I do not know that world very well (OK, at all) and therefore I really can’t be of much help. I fully support my colleagues and our good friends who want to support this activity, but for the most part they are going to have to do it without me. Maybe someday I’ll have a great idea and try to start a business, but it hasn’t happened yet, and I shouldn’t be telling students how to do it until I do. (That’s not entirely true – for a while I owned a business in Missouri called “Tropical Entertainment” that was the business front for a salsa band that I played in. But that’s a story for another column.) My skills are much better put to use helping students learn the fundamentals of electrical engineering, and supporting my faculty so that we can be the best ECE Department that we know how to being terms of education and research.

The other point I have to make about going “all in” with entrepreneurship is that, as exciting as it sounds, only a small fraction of our students are ever going to give it a shot. The vast majority of our students are going to work for an established company as an engineer, and they are going to be very good at it.  The 300+ companies that come to campus to hire our students are well aware of this.  Taking this a step further, I’m not going to throw all those corporate recruiters under the bus by telling them that our main goal is to train students to start their own businesses. People study engineering for all sorts of reasons. Our mission should be to prepare students in electrical and computer engineering, so that they can go out into the world, practice their trade, and make a decent living. What they do after that is up to them. Starting a business is one of the options, to be sure, but the truth is that most of them will practice their engineering by working for someone else, and that’s perfectly OK with me.

My last point today has to do with the issue of when is the best time to get into the entrepreneurial game. As I stated above, I am supportive of my colleagues who want to bring that down into undergraduate educational programs. Where I draw the line, however, is in substituting business and entrepreneurship for hard-core engineering at the undergraduate level. There is a time and a place for everything, and let’s face it, the best time to learn science, math, and engineering is when you are young. Young brains are just ready for it. Those same brains may not be fully developed for mature social interactions, but that’s OK, there is time enough for that later.  Business, management, leadership, entrepreneurship – these are domains that require knowledge of working with people as well as working with things, and for many that knowledge comes with a few extra years. My advice to students is, before you get stars in your eyes, LEARN ENGINEERING FIRST. It will serve you well later, no matter what you do. As a case in point, I look at all of our very – and I mean very – successful ECE alumni who have had fabulous careers as business leaders and entrepreneurships, and are promoting entrepreneurship on our campus so heavily. Ask them what they were doing when they were 22 years old, and the answer is uniformly the same - they were working as engineers.

Am I the only one who sees the irony in this situation?  Engineering education and engineering practice at a young age is the best launch pad for anything our ambitious students want to accomplish in life.

So again, I fully support my colleagues who seek to bring exposure to entrepreneurship into our undergraduate curriculum; I think it’s great and very forward-looking. For my part, I’m going to keep doing what I do best – building educational programs for students that I fully expect to be among the very best electrical and computer engineers in the country.

- Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

ECE announces MasterpiECE Mania winners

MasterpiECE Mania first place team Physical Spectrum Analyzer by Matthew Linenfelser, Jerry Sommerfeld, Alex Herbst, and Matt Miller
MasterpiECE Mania first place project Physical Spectrum Analyzer by Matthew Linenfelser, Jerry Sommerfeld, Alex Herbst, and Matt Miller

There was electricity in the air last night at the MasterpiECE Mania student design competition hosted by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and IEEE. 16 teams competed in the annual event with prizes going to the top three teams. Actually four, as the judges concluded a tie for third.

This year’s event was sponsored by Whirlpool Corporation with a generous gift of $2,000 to help support cash prizes, partial project supply reimbursal, event promotion, and a pasta buffet prior to the evening’s demonstrations to thank all the team members for their time and effort in their creative innovations.

Here are the results:

  • 1st place, $500: Physical Spectrum Analyzer by Matthew Linenfelser, Jerry Sommerfeld, Alex Herbst, and Matt Miller
  • 2nd place, $300: Automatic Resistor Sorter by Peter Gorecki
  • 3rd place, $200 (ea): Midi Orchestra by Joe Halford; Internet Enabled LED Controller by Alex Simon and Pierce Jensen
  • Honorable mention: Arduino Uno Controlled Quadcopter by Cameron Burke;  Rc Aircraft by Josh Gobrogge

A few details regarding the winning project: A spectrum analyzer is a device for analyzing a system of oscillations, especially sound, into its separate components. The “Winter Spectrum” uses small polystyrene particles and powerful fans to visualize an audio signal. Using a microprocessor (TI Tiva C Launchpad) the team was able to run a Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) algorithm on an incoming line level audio signal. This separated the audio frequencies into “bins” which integer value represents the intensity of the certain frequency. Pulse width modulated (PWM) signals are fed to the fans under the acrylic enclosure. The beads then rise to the level that best represents the FFT frequency bin average.

MasterpiECE Mania began in 2009 with the goal of inciting creativity throughout the Michigan Tech community and fostering an appreciation for the ‘DIY’ aspect of modern electronics. Although the yearly MasterpiECE Mania competition is hosted by the Michigan Tech ECE department, it is open to all Michigan Tech Students regardless of major. This intra-disciplinary hack-a-thon competition challenges student to develop and build an electrical-based project that displays their skill and ingenuity.

Fridays with Fuhrmann: The Silicon Valley Experience

SiValley-Tour-2014-1311131I am writing today while en route back to Houghton after a week in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was participating in something that has become an annual Spring Break event, tagging along with 20 Michigan Tech students on a whirlwind tour we call the Silicon Valley Experience. Students from all different majors apply through an internal competition to take part. They visited 12 different companies over 4 days, learning all about the high-tech world of Silicon Valley and the entrepreneurial culture surrounding it. The list of companies includes household names – Apple, Google, Facebook – along with other established companies and new start-ups. There is a Michigan Tech connection at all these places, which helps to get our foot in the door. My time is split between visiting with Michigan Tech alumni, both old friends and new, and joining the students at company visits as my schedule allows. I want to give a shout-out here to our Director of Industry Program Development, Adam Johnson, for the terrific job he did at organizing the event and taking care of all the logistics.

After one of these trips to California I come away with so many impressions that I could easily fill two or three of these columns with my random thoughts. I just might.

First off, we all just have to admit that Silicon Valley is the center of the universe when it comes to innovation in the information technology space. There is no other place like it. It is brimming with all sorts of electrical engineers, computer engineers, software engineers, and entrepreneurs working to create the next big thing and disrupt last year’s technology, with the support of a massive economic engine of venture capital. Almost overnight, it seems, the technology created there has gone from a novelty to a necessity – search engines on Google, smart phones from Apple, social media on Facebook where these very words are being written. I can sit in an airport and be connected to family, friends, and work via a communication network called the Internet that hardly anyone imagined some 30-40 years ago. These are hugely powerful forces that have transformed our lives completely, and the pace of that change shows no signs of slowing down.

There is a lot of excitement and buzz surrounding these technological innovations, and as a result Silicon Valley attracts the best and brightest engineering talent. There are a lot of job opportunities, but even so the market can be pretty competitive as the top companies can afford to be pretty choosy. It’s like the song lyric about New York – if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. In fact, the analogy with Broadway is pretty apt, as job interviews have been transformed from conversations across a desk to auditions of actual programming and engineering skill. I understand the process can be pretty grueling. However, if one has what it takes, the salaries and perks are unmatched in the engineering world.

One immediate impression that I come away with is how the workplace itself has changed over the past decade. Google was on the leading edge, but their style has been picked up by most of the other established companies and newcomers. On this trip it seemed to me that Facebook is raising the bar even further. Every day is casual day. I don’t even bother packing a tie when I travel to California anymore; I wore the same pair of jeans all this week and half the time I was overdressed. More remarkable is the level of amenities available to employees – free food and drink 24/7, all you can eat, game rooms, music rooms, barber shops, bicycle repair, even medical care. The days of residential dormitories on or near the corporate campuses are not far away. The whole idea is to keep engineers and programmers at work and happy for hours on end, and not give them any reason to stop being productive. I get to sample this workplace style every so often because of a Google-sponsored research project I am on right now. I have to wonder what it would be like all the time – I guess one gets used to it – but for the few days at a time that I see it, I feel like I am living high on the hog. For the companies, it is clear that the cost of these amenities is far outweighed by the value of a productive employee.

I will bring this to a close here, and follow up in the next few weeks with my thoughts on 1) the culture of entrepreneurship in the high-tech world, 2) what universities like Michigan Tech should be doing to help students prepare for success, and 3) what can other regions of U.S., like the upper Midwest, learn from Silicon Valley. No doubt I’ll be trolling the Internet on my smartphone and checking in with social media to get some good material.

- Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann, Dave House Professor and Chair

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Michigan Technological Univerrsity